Puerto Rico Sketchbook: The Elders of the Island


Arts & Culture

In November, the artist and writer Molly Crabapple spent a week in Puerto Rico documenting grassroots efforts by communities to rebuild after Hurricane Maria. Here are excerpts from her sketchbook.

All images © Molly Crabapple.


Puerto Rico is an elderly island. A quarter of its population is over sixty-five.  

This is due to the last of a series of great migrations. Poverty, gifted to the island by Spain and then exacerbated by American colonization, sent able bodies abroad. First, in the early twentieth century, they went to roll cigars in Ybor City, Florida, and to till plantations in Hawaii, then they went to basic training (Puerto Ricans fought and died in both world wars), then, in the fifties, they went to sew garments and get cancer in the factories of New York. These workers kept the island close. Many returned, after decades of labor, to buy their parcela, a bit of land on which to resurrect a half-fictitious childhood on the green and generous earth, but this time with American modernity and the conveniences that was meant to imply. They looked with shame at the outhouse, the well, the mosquito net. In the early twenty-first century, the pattern continued. The island’s bankruptcy, unemployment, and the savage budget cuts imposed by the U.S. financial-control board—la junta—again forced working-age adults to leave the island, and their elderly parents, behind.

In many cases, after Maria, it was the Puerto Rican elders who saved their neighbors and rebuilt their barrios. When the bridge collapsed at Utuado, it was men in their sixties who waded through the waters and strung a wire across the river. For over two months, a shopping cart slid back and forth along that wire to deliver food to the people still in the barrio. New York Magazine wrote about Ernesto Matos Santana, a seventy-nine-year-old fisherman who got in his boat and rescued fifteen people stranded by the floodwaters. I met elderly men who cleared the hurricane debris in Paloma Abajo with chains, wheelbarrows, and shovels, and women in their sixties and seventies who fed their neighbors each day at Proyecto de Apoyo Mutuo in Barrio Mariana. These were tough women, with strong arms and easy laughter, like Rosalina Abreu Gonzalez, leader of the Communal Recreational and Educational Association of Mariana, the community organization that harvested the breadfruit and successfully fought the U.S. Navy for control of the barrio’s water supply.

At the bar in Mariana, the old men played their eternal rounds of dominos, slamming down the last winning piece on the table, crowing over who would buy the next round of drinks. Some sat drunk in the corner, silent as kings, surveying the crowd in the golden heat of the mountains that Maria had cut off from the world. If you ignored the beer ads, the scene could be from the 1930s, or even the 1890s. There will not be power till May, at the earliest, despite Governor Roselló’s optimistic lies about restoring electricity in time for Christmas.    

The wrecked economy and closed schools have forced countless younger people to the mainland, but the older men and women stay.

A few weeks after Maria hit, my aunt wrote to tell me that her eighty-seven-year-old mother was still on the island. She will not leave her spot,” my aunt told me. “She said, In my time, we did not have any lights and water flowing. We will survive and we will pick up again, so don’t worry, my dear. I’ll be fine.”

“I like the states to visit only, not to live,” Dominic Rios told me, who worked for years in Connecticut and North Carolina.


Molly Crabapple is an artist and author of the memoir Drawing Blood. Her next book, Brothers of the Gun, cowritten with the Syrian war journalist Marwan Hisham, will be published by Random House in May 2018.